In keeping with today’s unpredictable political landscape across the Western world, Thursday’s General Election produced yet another shock result. Just a few short weeks ago, before campaigning really got into gear, Theresa May and her Conservatives enjoyed a huge 24-point poll lead and a sense that only they could be trusted to navigate the UK through the deeply challenging Brexit process, now beginning in just one week’s time. Traders predicted a powerful 100 seat majority in the Commons, a margin that reduced somewhat as the campaign progressed but remained as high as 85 seats as recently as last Wednesday, on the eve of election day. As soon as polls closed at 10pm Thursday, a broad exit poll showed these expectations were wildly over-optimistic, with the government short of an overall majority, creating a hung parliament. So, what went wrong? Was this result all a product of a poor Conservative campaign performance and the stronger showing on the stump from Jeremy Corbyn and Co, or were there other, more significant factors at play?
Whether we were talking about a landslide for the Conservatives or merely an enhanced majority from the 2015 poll, one thing is clear. Theresa May displayed a worrying lack of confidence on campaign which switched off voters in droves and pushed others into the arms of a grateful Labour opposition. The decision not to take part in televised debates smacked less of arrogance and rather more of hesitance, in direct contrast with the image of stability and certainty upon which she was promoted post referendum. Theresa May is clearly a capable Minister and Prime Minister when it concerns the substantive issues of government itself. Therefore, she likely remains the best person to lead the UK through the complicated and convoluted process of leaving the EU. However, on campaign, voters are used to seeing passionate, polished presenters, capable of converting dull policy and manifesto into hope and enthusiasm. For all his hard-left lunacy, during this campaign, Jeremy Corbyn excelled in the presentation of his and Labour’s vision, enlivening, in particular, young Londoners, where Labour made substantial gains, and those across the UK usually less than engaged with the political world.
The proposed reform of adult social care, the so-called ‘Dementia Tax’ and unprecedented rapid policy U-turn was also clearly a significant factor in the election result. Just as Theresa May was busy switching off young voters on the campaign trail, the proposed policy reform enraged the traditional older Conservative support base and their children by threatening to confiscate a substantial amount of built-up wealth and inheritance to pay for later-life care. In this way, a ‘perfect storm’ was created, simultaneously eroding support on both sides of the political demographic. As an aside, in Scotland, the ‘Dementia Tax’ would not have applied and it’s doubtful that the Conservatives would have made such significant progress against the SNP had that not been the case.
The third factor influencing the result of the General Election clearly relates to the way in which the young felt under-represented in the EU Referendum vote. At the time, many young potential voters stayed away from the polls, believing the UK would vote decisively to remain within the EU regardless. They were further turned off by the very negative campaigning tactics from both Leave and Remain camps and the lack of realistic communication about life outside the EU. After the vote, many under 40’s were further stung by the recognition that the older generation had potentially damaged a future that they themselves would not be part of and that the government responded to the vote by pushing for the hardest possible Brexit. Having made the mistake of not voting less than one year ago, young voters were not about to do so twice. As such the result of the election could be characterised as ‘the revenge of the young’ or perhaps, the ‘mobilisation of the young.’ Whichever way we choose to view the outcome, it has undoubtedly revealed a new generation of political activists and broadened the political demographic substantially. This can only be good for our democracy in the longer-term.
An unstable coalition government is not likely the best situation for the UK as we enter tough negotiations for our future outside the EU. As such Theresa May’s new Cabinet may be given a ‘stay of execution’ for the sake of stability but will not likely last. Fatigued voters may face another election within a year and the Conservatives will likely appoint another as PM beforehand. Perhaps the rush for the hardest possible Brexit was too much for our liberal democracy, particularly the young and for those worried about our economic progress outside the Single Market. At the same time a poor campaign performance from Theresa May, coupled with a serious policy mistake may have cost Conservative candidates more than 50 seats. Hopefully a more inclusive Conservative government and a conciliatory approach to Brexit will produce a better long-term economic and social outcome for the UK.